By Lisa Loomis and Rachel Goff
Pop-up tents, scavenger hunts and a ferry service? Merchants, the Mad River Valley Chamber of Commerce and the town of Waitsfield are strategizing about ways to ensure that the planned construction work on Bridge Street this spring and summer does not negatively impact businesses.
On Wednesday, May 6, retail, restaurant and lodging owners attended a meeting conducted by town administrator Valerie Capels to review the construction schedule and learn what parts of Bridge Street and the Waitsfield covered bridge will be accessible to them and their customers between May and September, when the work will take place.
At that meeting, merchants received clarification from Jim Ligon of Alpine Construction who explained that Bridge Street and the covered bridge will be closed starting May 18. Pedestrian access will be allowed over the bridge through mid-June, until the bridge deck is removed.
After that, the bridge will be closed to foot traffic except for July 8 through 12, when Mad Marathon runners will be able to pass through it. The majority of work on the street itself should be completed by mid-July, when crews will have laid the base coat of pavement.
To complete the project, construction crews plan to work four 10-hour days. The village will be free of construction activity starting Friday and through the weekend and "We'll try to leave it in the best condition we can," Ligon said, so that locals and tourists can safely access the different services in the area.
Already, many business owners had ideas for mitigating the visual and physical impact of the bridge and street closure, including improved signage and scavenger hunts.
Troy Kingsbury, owner of Village Grocery, said via email to Bridge Street business owners and the town that he'd like to offer green space next to the store for a pop-up tent where a Bridge Street business could display sample wares to increase exposure for their business.
Kingsbury and other merchants proposed several opportunities to draw people to the area during construction. "I would also hope that the town might relax their sandwich board policy in the historic area to help affected businesses as well. I'm sure that if we all work together we can come up with some great ideas that will ensure that our town and businesses are left better than before this construction started," said Kingsbury.
Indeed, Capels said at Wednesday's meeting, that while certain signage requires a permit, if installed by the town itself that process is waived. Signage such as banners will not be allowed across Route 100, Capels explained, as that road is owned by the state.
One business owner proposed that the town take a photo of the shops on Bridge Street before construction starts, have it printed on a large piece of vinyl and display it somewhere north of the village on Route 100, alerting drivers of the downtown that lies ahead. "You can get a lot of visual impact for a very small sum of money," he said.
"It'd be like a Vermont billboard," Kingsbury said good-naturedly.
CREATING A PARKING PLAN
In addition to advertising that they are still open during construction, village merchants also shared concerns about parking. "On a hot day, there's not a spot open in that lot," one business owner said at Wednesday's meeting, referring to the parking just south of Bridge Street adjacent to the river.
As a solution, Kingsbury offered up space for cars behind Village Grocery and others agreed to look into the possibility of parking at Waitsfield United Church of Christ, the old farm stand on Route 100, the Wait House, Waitsfield Elementary School and the Miramar Ski Club (on the opposite side of the bridge).
Overall, business owners shared an interest in funneling as much tourist traffic to Bridge Street as possible during its busiest months, even joking that someone should start up a ferry service to help pedestrians cross the river by boat, or that the town could install a zipline over the waterway.
"Stay positive," Lisa Davis, Mad River Valley Chamber of Commerce director wrote in an email to members last week. "Show visitors that our character extends beyond the covered bridge. Give them a customer service experience that will make them want to come back again when the bridge work is complete," Davis wrote.
The town is starting a project that was originally planned to start four years ago. It involves removing the pedestrian portion of the covered bridge and replacing it, repaving Bridge Street, fixing a bridge abutment and fixing stormwater drainage under Bridge Street.
To accommodate the pedestrian bridge replacement work, utility lines will have to be moved and that means a pole will have to be moved. That work is to begin this week. It also involves taking down an ash tree on the east side of the river near the mailboxes for the condos immediately east of the bridge.
PAST PROJECT IMPEDIMENTS
The town put the project out to bid last summer, after having it delayed first by Tropical Storm Irene and then by the reconstruction after that. Prior to it going out to bid, the town met with representatives of the Mad River Valley Chamber of Commerce as well as Bridge Street and Bridge Street Marketplace business owners to talk about the impacts of construction and strategies to support businesses during the process.
When the bids came in last summer, they were all over budget and the project could not happen in 2014. The town received additional grant funding this year and voters authorized the town to borrow up to $400,000 toward the project at Town Meeting this year.
Two of the initial grants that the town has for the project will be lost in September and December if the town doesn't complete the work. FEMA funding for the retaining wall repair needs to be used by September 1 and EPA grant funds for the stormwater system will be lost if not completed by December 31.
When the project was put out to bid this winter, the bid documents specified that work must be completed by July 31. While the town accepted the low bid in January, the contract could not be executed until after voters approved the spending at Town Meeting. This resulted in a two-month delay in the contractor's ability to order materials. Specifically this meant that the metal sidewalk structure to replace the pedestrian bridge was backordered and the July 31 deadline could not be met.
The town met with chamber representatives on April 28 and met again with stakeholders about moving the utility pole last week. Following those meetings, Davis sent an email to chamber members outlining ways that the community can accentuate the positive and make sure locals and visitors know that the businesses are still open and make sure that people know how to get to them, where to park and other details.
"This is going to be an ongoing conversation," Capels said at the end of Wednesday's meeting, reminding business owners that, while the construction will have a negative impact on Bridge Street in the short-term, "It's going to be beautiful when it's done."